A significant proportion of seniors in the US have an unhealthy relationship with food, according to a new study. The report, which was conducted using data from the National Survey on Healthy Aging at the University of Michigan, found that 1 in 8 people over age 50 have food addictions — and many involve ultra-processed foods.
The researchers also found that nearly half of older adults had at least one symptom of addiction to highly processed foods.
Food addiction, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a term used to describe an eating behavior that involves excessive consumption of specific foods in an addictive way. People with food addiction tend to experience symptoms such as loss of control over how much they eat, intense cravings, continuing to eat certain foods despite experiencing negative consequences, and having feelings of withdrawal such as restlessness, irritability, and depression when cutting back on these foods, study co-authors , Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Michigan, told Yahoo Life.
Food addiction is often linked to ultra-processed foods, which are foods made with little or no whole ingredients, along with lots of sugar, salt and fat, to “make them highly palatable,” Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet and a registered dietitian, he told Yahoo Life. “When consumed, they lead to the release of dopamine in our brain and leave us wanting more and more of this feel-good hormone,” she says.
Experts say this is done on purpose. “There is evidence that the food industry designs ultra-processed foods to be highly rewarding, to maximize cravings and to make us want more and more and more,” says Gearhardt. “That’s good for profits, but it’s not good for our health. Plus, these ultra-processed foods are cheap, accessible, convenient, and heavily commercialized, which makes them harder to resist.”
Food addiction is often linked to emotions in some way, with people “eating to try to feel better,” registered dietitian Sonya Angelone, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Yahoo Life. “However, it usually ends up making them feel worse,” she says.
Food addiction can be linked to many distressing feelings, Gearhardt says, and people often struggle to stop eating foods they’re addicted to. “If your relationship with ultra-processed foods is causing you a lot of distress or undermining your ability to be effective in your own life, it might be time to seek professional help,” she says.
Given that ultra-processed foods such as chips, cookies, packaged sweets, and fast food are readily available and promoted in our society, it can be difficult to know whether you have a food addiction or just like certain foods. But people who have experienced food addiction say it can be a highly distressing experience. Here are their stories.
‘I would go through the garbage to try to recover the food I threw in the garbage.’
Sara Somers, who wrote a memoir about her food addiction called Saving Sara: A Memoir About Food Addiction, told Yahoo Life that she “was always addicted to something – and the end result was food”. Somers says that she was addicted to sugary foods as well as different types of carbohydrates. “I was overweight and thinking I was obese, so I started dieting,” Somers tells Yahoo Life. “But the more I dieted, the more it didn’t work – I kept gaining the weight back, and more. I had a feeling of failure and that this was never going to work.”
Somers says she started to overeat. “When a craving hit, I ate as much as I could, whenever I could,” she says. She also began to abuse alcohol, because some diets had no restrictions on alcohol. “I think what I wanted more than anything in the world was to be someone else,” says sh.
She had never heard the term “food addiction” until age 30, when she started attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings. “I was a garbage can eater – I would rummage through the garbage to try to recover the food I threw in the garbage,” says Somers. “Food addiction would drive me to this terrible place. It was disgusting and horrible.”
Somers says he discovered 12-step programs through Alcoholics Anonymous but resisted treatment for years. “I got a solution, I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to work so hard,” she says. “I thought miserable people like me deserved an easy way out, until one day there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.”
She found that sugar and carbohydrates (which convert to sugar in the body) were especially problematic for her. “Turns out not eating sugar, grains or certain carbs like rice and potatoes was actually easier,” she says. “The wishes are gone.”
Now, Somers weighs her food at every meal to help her control portion sizes. “I’ve been doing this for 16 years. It’s exactly what I do and it’s my medicine,” she says. “I feel lucky. Nobody knows I’m addicted to food unless I tell them.”
Somers says it has also improved her relationship with food. “I used to think food was the enemy,” she says. “Now I’ve learned to cook. I like to eat. I’m never hungry. I never have cravings. My relationship with food is good.”
Despite the gains she’s made, Somers says she still considers herself a foodie. “It’s a disease that cannot be cured – it can only be stopped,” she says.
‘I would binge eat until I felt physically ill, because eating made me happy.’
Raul Quiroz told Yahoo Life that he “always had a difficult relationship with food”.
“I was always bullied for being overweight, so my food addiction and bullying caused me to develop different eating disorders – anorexia and bulimia,” he says. “I would binge eat until I felt physically sick because eating made me happy, but as soon as I finished eating, that’s when anger and regret flooded my mind.”
Quiroz says he realized that his relationship with food was different from that of others when he moved to Europe to study, aged 21. “I had to share a room and apartment with other students, and that included sharing a fridge with 16 other guys,” he says. “I noticed how my roommates would leave food on their plate and save it for later or just throw it in the trash. I wasn’t capable of that. In my head, I had to finish everything on my plate.”
He also noticed that his roommates bought large bags of chips that lasted for weeks, while he ate an entire bag in a matter of minutes. “My eating patterns were extremely different than everyone else’s, and that’s when I realized I had a real problem,” he says.
So Quiroz met with a nutritionist and started attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings. “I had to learn to count my calorie intake, weigh my food, and understand how food works,” he says. “Even though I was seeing a professional, I still binge-eated at times, and it was showing in my weight.”
Quiroz says the Overeaters Anonymous meetings helped him understand the emotions behind his eating habits. “I had to follow the 12 steps and start living one day at a time,” he says. “The program gave me the tools I needed to control my addiction.”
Now, says Quiroz, his relationship with food is “better than ever”. He adds, “Now I know my portions and how often I can afford to ‘cheat’.” He also works out regularly, adding, “I’m in the best shape of my life.”
What to do if you suspect you have a food addiction
If you think you have a food addiction, Gearhardt recommends showing yourself some compassion first. “This is really hard,” she says. “Our brains are not wired to handle ultra-processed foods that are intensely rewarding.”
She suggests seeking help from a professional, such as a mental health counselor, doctor, nutritionist, or support group. “You can also focus on trying to eat regularly — three meals, one or two snacks — of ‘real’ foods,” she says. “If you’re well fed, your brain is less reactive to ultra-processed foods.”
It’s also crucial to understand what your triggers are, such as certain times of day, people and places, and come up with a plan to deal with sticky situations. “For many people, that means developing alternative ways of dealing with stress and regulating their emotions,” she says.
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